The en­coders

Mod­ern ver­sion of an age-old at­tempt to keep in­for­ma­tion se­cret

Finweek English Edition - - People -

AT A TEN­DER 24, Malan Jou­bert is al­ready an au­to­matic mem­ber of that club where com­puter nerds such as Steve Jobs and Mark Shut­tle­worth share se­cret hand­shakes and dis­cuss topics like “hard­ware con­fig­u­ra­tion”. Jou­bert is the found­ing mem­ber of FireID and is lend­ing cred­i­bil­ity to fledg­ling Sil­i­con Cape’s sta­tus as South Africa’s ver­sion of Sil­i­con Val­ley. The com­pany was the first in the world to de­velop a sys­tem that pro­vides a one-time pass­word (OTP) au­then­ti­ca­tion so­lu­tion by gen­er­at­ing se­cure pass­words on users’ cell­phones.

In non-geek speak, this time: it’s the technology that al­lows In­ter­net users to re­ceive PINs or pass­words on their cell­phones to log on to on­line bank­ing or other web­sites. And it’s more se­cure than its com­peti­tors’ technology, thanks to Jou­bert and his nerds-in-arms, Justin Stan­ford and Erik van Vlaan­deren.

While still a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Stel­len­bosch, Jou­bert was ap­proached by Stan­ford, who was run­ning an anti-virus dis­tri­bu­tion busi­ness at the time, to help ex­pand its prod­uct line. Jou­bert and Stan­ford con­sid­ered im­port­ing the small hard­ware de­vices some banks still is­sue for on­line bank­ing pass­words. How­ever, the de­vices were ex­pen­sive and Malan and Stan­ford re­alised it would be a cum­ber­some ex­er­cise to dis­trib­ute to a mass mar­ket.

“So I played around with it a bit and re­built them,” says Jou­bert. “We then started toy­ing with the fea­si­bil­ity of putting the de­vice on to a cell­phone.”

In a coun­try where most res­i­dents own a mo­bile phone, the con­cept went vi­ral. “We got se­ri­ous about fund­ing when com­peti­tors started mov­ing in on the mar­ket,” says Jou­bert.

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